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June 16, 2016, 6:50 a.m.

“We’re not the monolith that we once were”: Sports Illustrated’s new boss on plans for digital growth

SI is unveiling a redesigned website next month and trying to build more “non-core” assets, like live events.

Much has changed since Chris Stone first joined Sports Illustrated in 1992.

While SI was once focused solely on publishing a weekly magazine, it’s now constantly posting stories and videos to its various websites and social accounts, building an events business, and trying to stand out in a world awash with sports coverage.

Those issues are now at the forefront of Stone’s mind, as SI’s parent company, Time Inc., last week named Stone the new editorial director for Sports Illustrated, Golf, and SI Kids.

Stone will take over from Paul Fichtenbaum, who last week said he was stepping down effective June 30.

“We need to find new ways to supplement what we’re doing and reaching audiences that we’re not reaching right now,” Stone said. “I don’t think that’s achieved by just saying, okay we’re going to do this in the magazine, we’re going to do this in the website, from a traditional content standpoint and that’s going to solve everything.”

Stone and I spoke about SI’s digital plans, the role of a weekly print magazine, and the evolving sports journalism landscape. Here’s a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Joseph Lichterman: I know you’ve been involved with much of SI’s digital expansion in recent years with sites like MMQB, Planet Futbol, and others. I know there’s the Tech and Media vertical launching too. But how are you thinking about the digital presence for SI, Golf, and SI Kids?

Chris Stone: I’m thinking about them in two buckets. There’s the content bucket — we’ll call that our core bucket — and then there’s the non-core assets, which is content, but less traditional forms of content.

As far as the content piece goes, I think we can offer a premium content experience. I see it everyday with what we do, with what goes up across our site and social channels. The exclusives we get on a routine basis, stories that nobody else is getting. The video we’re producing, both short and longform. The new verticals we’re developing, in addition to the MMQB and Planet Futbol. [Wednesday] we launch the tech vertical; in the fall, we launch an NBA-focused vertical. The quality of our content is apparent everyday, but the first step for us is to fix our product — meaning the site itself. To that end, by the end of July, we’ll have a fully functional, highly functional, attractive new site. The redesign should be completed by the last week of July. That enables us to better tell our content story, obviously.

What you’re going to see Sports Illustrated do a lot of in the coming months and years is to really make big bets in non-core assets, with things like live events, for example, where we’re going to make a big play. Also, nontraditional forms of storytelling, with social media.

I assume you’re in Cambridge, right? Are you a Sox fan?

Lichterman: I’m not. I follow them, but I’m from Detroit originally — so I’m a Tigers fan.

Stone: I grew up a Sox fan — I think you’ll see where I’m going with this soon enough. It was a really powerful nationally known brand that was seen as being somewhat resistant to change, and certainly the Red Sox were. You would go to a Red Sox game and it’d be a drab fan experience. It was the same thing year in and year out. It was soggy Fenway Franks, warm beer, John Kiley on the organ as the sole soundtrack.

Then new ownership came in 2002 and said, not only are we going to fix the core, but we’re going to seek to develop our non-core assets. And they made these investments in things like a video production company, a NASCAR team, an English Premier League soccer team, a very successful sports and marketing group. They doubled down on NESN, their television arm, they started throwing concerts in Fenway Park, they had the Winter Classic NHL game in Fenway Park.

What they were doing was they were making nontraditional investments — substantial ones that were designed to enhance the core, to make the overall product a stronger one. I think in 2016, if we look at Sports Illustrated, we can’t go forward without a core — but conversely the core alone is not a sustainable business model. We need to find new ways to supplement what we’re doing and reaching audiences that we’re not reaching right now. I don’t think that’s achieved by just saying, okay, we’re going to do this in the magazine, we’re going to do this in the website, from a traditional content standpoint and that’s going to solve everything. I think we have to take some bets with live events or fan experiences, and stretch ourselves in other areas where sports fans might engage.

Lichterman: What will those non-core assets look like? What might we expect to see on the live events front?

Stone: Oh, boy. This is where I’m kind of stuck. I can’t really give away some of the initiatives we’re pursuing.

But let’s take live events, for instance. Sports Person of the Year is one of our tent poles. It has a lot of prestige. A fair number of people know what it is, and if you know Sports Illustrated, you certainly know what it is. In the past it’s been a really nice event. It’s a one-night thing. It’s a dinner. You have like 400 people there. Let’s put it this way, without getting into the specifics of it: We want to make it much bigger. We want to make it seem like a much bigger public-facing event. Again, I’m stopping short of giving away too much because I’m not at liberty to share these things, but we’re getting closer to something that will be a transformative experience, especially relative to what it once was.

We’re trying to make Swimsuit another core franchise of ours. Right now, it drops in February and it’s a big part of the conversation for a couple of weeks, but we want Swimsuit to feel like more of a year-round event because we do produce swimsuit content year round, and we invest in it year-round, but a lot of people don’t see it as more than an event takes place in February. At the end of this summer, we’re doing a Governors Ball-type event — it’s going to be at a refurbished amphitheater in Coney Island, it’s going to be called Summer of Swim, and the idea is to extend the footprint of one of our biggest franchises in a much bigger fashion.

Lichterman: What do you see as the role of the Swimsuit Issue in 2016? How does it fit into your day-to-day sports coverage?

Stone: It’s still like it’s always been: It’s of Sports Illustrated, but separate from Sports Illustrated. I’m not going to call it a non-core asset, because it’s actually part of our core. But it represents the diversity of the Sports Illustrated portfolio. We have The MMQB, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, SI.com, and SI Kids over here. Over here, we have Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, which is its own franchise in and of itself. I mentioned all these other things that we’re hoping to invest in in the future: live events and fan experiences. That just broadens our portfolio. You can think of it as this diverse mutual fund of sorts.

Lichterman: The other thing you mentioned earlier is a website redesign. You just redesigned your website in 2014. Why redesign it again so quickly? Have things changed in these two years that warrant another redesign?

SportsIllustrated

Stone: Because it needs redesigning. You could go to the site right now. I don’t even know that I need to explain it much further. Right now, it’s not at the level at it needs to be from a functionality standpoint, from an aesthetics standpoint. We can’t begin to tell a new story without fixing our product. We have, what we believe, is a premium content experience — now we need to marry that to a premium product. That’s the idea behind the redesign. It’s a very simple rationale.

Lichterman: You mentioned also this fall launching a basketball vertical. What might we expect to see from that?

Stone: I think, and I know a lot of people here share this belief, that basketball has the steepest arc going forward of any of the professional sports. It has great leadership right now. It’s a great, great product. It has more stars than it’s ever had, and it’s always been a league that’s been driven by stars. I think in many ways now, the NBA right now is where it was in the ’80s, when it just wasn’t the leading edge of sports culture, but it was the leading edge of culture period. It has an incredible audience. The best conversations in all sports, socially, for example, are with the NBA. It has a great audience, great conversation, great product, great leadership. We’re hitching our wagon to that. We think it’s only going to get better. Football is still king, undoubtedly. There’s no argument about that. But when you look into the future and you say, “Well, who has the best opportunity going forward?” I’d say the NBA, and I would put soccer not far behind it.

Lichterman: What’s your relationship like with the business side? I know there was a big deal made a few years ago when editors were going to report to executives on the business side. Does that impact your thinking at all? What are the pressures or challenges facing the business from your perspective?

Stone: The old church-state model doesn’t exist any more. I think we’ve moved past that particular story. Simultaneously, I, and I’m pretty certain Paul feels the same way, that our mission or our direction was guided by business interests here. We are certainly aware of what the market wants, and we’re delving into areas that were almost unthinkable five years ago, like with native advertising for example, those are revenue streams that we’re definitely pursuing. I feel confident that it hasn’t compromised the quality of the storytelling and the journalism we do, or even put up any flags that suggest that we can’t go in these particular directions. In terms of pursuing the stories we want to pursue, we’re as independent as we ever were.

Lichterman: Given the increased emphasis on digital and video, what do you see the role of the week-to-week print magazine in this digital world where so much is changing hour to hour, or even minute to minute?

Stone: Listen, I think I’ve said this before. The core alone — and you can view that as the magazine, because it still to a large extent defines Sports Illustrated and is where we derive a lot of our prestige from — but the core alone is not a sustainable business model. Conversely, without the core, we can’t really grow. It plays a vital role in our future; it just isn’t going to play a leading role in our future.

As we get better telling the stories that people traditionally come to the magazine for, as we get better telling those stories digitally — and we will — what is somebody really losing? We have 3 million paid subscribers who pay money for the magazine at at time when so much is still free. Obviously, this means a great deal. We put a lot of time and resources, no less than we ever had, in creating a premium print product. We’ll continue to do that as long as there demand is. At the same time we’re going to be very aggressive simultaneously at creating that same experience on our digital platforms.

Lichterman: For a really long time, SI was seen as the premier place for longform, narrative sports journalism, but with the advent of the internet, there are so many places doing that, between SB Nation, Deadspin, or ESPN. How do you see the overall sports media landscape changing, and how does SI fit into it?

Stone: When I got here in 1992, I was 22 at the time, and SI had a monopoly of sorts on national sports coverage. Even growing up and reading Sports Illustrated, you actually came to SI for such basic things as finding out who won in college football the previous weekend, what a particular player’s stats were, or where he was from. Those are things that you never come to Sports Illustrated for anymore. You have more choices than you’ve ever had — I’m stating the obvious here. There’s more good sports journalism and sports storytelling than there ever has been — conversely, there’s probably more bad sports journalism and sports storytelling than there ever has been.

Under the best of circumstances, we weren’t going to be able to maintain that marketshare, that monopoly, on the dissemination of sports journalism and sports stories. But I think in some ways it’s a blessing, because it forces us to work harder to tell the stories we’ve always told and to understand that it’s not enough to write a nice, cleanly written story about the team that’s been hot for the past week in MLB.

I still think we tell stories that nobody else tells, and we tell them better than anyone else tells them, but we’re not the monolith that we once were. That’s not a bad thing. It was inevitable, once the internet and digital opened everything up this was going to happen and it forced us to tell stories in new and interesting ways.

Photo of Sports Illustrated covers featuring Muhammad Ali by AP/Matt Dunham.

POSTED     June 16, 2016, 6:50 a.m.
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